If Tim McGraw is feeling nostalgic, he won't come right out and say it. Even Live Like You Were Dying, his new album that arrives in stores Tuesday (Aug. 24), is heavy with songs about the way life used to be, he shrugs off any suggestion that it was planned that way.
"I never really pay attention to any kind of themes when I make a record," he says. "I just try to find a bunch of songs that I like. These are the best songs I found for me. I don't think there's any sort of emotional attachment as to why there are some songs like that, because there are some songs that aren't like that. It's just a matter of those are the best songs I found, and those are the ones I liked and those are the ones I felt like the band and I could do well together."
Still, "Old Town New" talks about the way life used to be, "My Old Friend" recalls some long-gone good times with a buddy and "Something's Broken" laments that you can't go forward and you can't go back. Some of the song titles don't even need clarification, such as "Back When" and "We Carry On."
In the early days of McGraw's career, one could expect either a barnburner ("Indian Outlaw," "I Like It, I Love It") or a ballad ("Don't Take the Girl," "Can't Be Really Gone"). But the awards started rolling in when he tackled the more mature, mid-tempo songs, such as "Everywhere," "Please Remember Me," "Grown Men Don't Cry," "Angry All the Time" and "The Cowboy in Me." Unlike so much of what's on the radio these days, McGraw often sings about the side of love where things don't work out. Not exactly slow-dance material, but not quite ready for line-dancing, either.
So, how about the notion that this album is perhaps quieter than the last one -- and more reflective?
"There are probably a lot of mid-tempo songs on it, more than before," he says. "There's not a lot of ballad or a lot of up. There are a lot of things right in the mid. We went in with a lot more confidence in the studio this time, and I felt like these songs had a lot of meat to them and I felt that's where we needed to be as a band."
For those nostalgic for the rowdy McGraw, take heart. He has a secret weapon on the new album, an attitude-heavy number titled "How Bad Do You Want It." Just like "I Like It, I Love It," and "Real Good Man," the chorus is easy to sing and impossible to forget. He's already opening his shows with it. Later in the album, "Back When" showcases his cheeky sense of humor: Back when a hoe was a hoe/Coke was a Coke/And crack's what you were doing/When you were cracking jokes/Back when a screw was a screw/The wind was all that blew/And when you said I'm down with that/Well it meant you had the flu.
"I'm 37 years old," he says, "so I'm not that far removed from the younger generation, I guess, but I still can't understand what the hell they're saying sometimes."
Ironically, McGraw is speaking loud and clear to that generation. If you don't think people under 18 like country music, buy a ticket to a McGraw show and look around.
"We've always had younger kids," he says. "We comment on that every year about how young," he says. "Our audience expands all of it, but for the most part there are a lot of teenagers, and there always has been, and we've always been amazed by that. ... There are a lot of them out there. You see the first 40 rows, and it's mostly teenagers and young people."
McGraw spent six weeks at No. 1 with "Live Like You Were Dying." He says the first time he heard it, he and his wife, Faith Hill, were in the bathroom getting ready to go out. He stepped into the shower and she cranked the stereo, playing the demo three times in a row, and when he stepped out of the shower, he told her it would be the first single, no doubt about it.
But in time, he had second thoughts. His father, famed baseball player Tug McGraw, had been sick for a while, then passed away in January. Suddenly the lyrics -- about making the most of your life when you know the end is near -- seemed too real. "I almost didn't cut the song because of the situation," he says, "because I didn't want anybody to think I was cutting it for that."
Still, McGraw says, "When I heard the song, it didn't ring to be about death to me. It's more an affirmation of life, more than anything."
That concept pops up later in "Kill Myself," a seemingly straightforward song about suicide. The music is dark, and it takes more than one listen to grasp the true meaning of the narrator's story -- "getting rid of his old ways," as McGraw puts it.
McGraw knows that idea well. For his 2002 album, Tim McGraw and the Dancehall Doctors, he packed up his touring band and booked a studio in upstate New York, ditching the theory that country stars have to record in Nashville with studio musicians. Reaping positive results both commercially and artistically from that effort, McGraw returned to the same studio to create Live Like You Were Dying. For now, it appears he wouldn't consider any other approach.
"It snowed the whole time we were up there," he recalled. "We had big fires going, and we'd play until 5 in the morning. It was like being 16 and putting a garage band together and playing in your garage all night, except we had great equipment and great players.
"We went in with so much confidence, because last time everybody was kind of tip-toeing around. They were kind of scared. I was scared. Everybody was scared. This time, we went in and everybody was just confident. Nobody had any apprehensions. Everybody was just ready to go play."